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Short Cuts

Ben Folds Five
Naked Baby Photos
(Caroline)

This is the proverbial "contractual obligation" album: When Ben Folds Five signed to Sony, the band still owed its first label, Caroline Records, one more full-length album. This kind of circumstance usually results in a hastily assembled collection of "rare" tracks (a euphemism for all the stuff left on the cutting-room floor). Ben Folds Five put some extra care into the selection process that resulted in Naked Baby Photos -- so named since this is a collection of early outtakes, live tracks, and embarrassing studio larks -- but it will ultimately interest only the biggest fans of the band.

That said, it's a must-have for those of us who feel that this unique trio (Folds on piano, Darren Jessee on drums, Robert Sledge on bass guitar) can do absolutely no wrong. The song that started the band's career, the ebullient "Jackson Cannery," appears here in exactly the same form as it did on the band's first seven-inch. There's also a very graceful tune called "Eddie Walker" that Folds, in the album's delightful liner notes, calls "the first song to click in rehearsal." Two songs that didn't make it onto the first album -- "Emmaline" and "Tom & Mary" -- are also included, and the former is an airplay-ready gem that must have been difficult to shelve.

The nine live tracks on this disc (recorded in various locales around the world) do a good job of capturing the band's high-spirited energy, especially on the bitterly funny "Underground," performed before a vocal audience in Folds' hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. One of the disc's nicest surprises is "Twin Falls," recorded live in Tokyo. The polite audience results in appropriate silence for this ballad of elementary-school puppy love, one of Folds' prettiest compositions.

The just-goofing-around sessions have their limited charm. Two satirical metal-ballads -- "The Ultimate Sacrifice" and "Satan Is My Master" -- are amusing if only because you get to hear Folds' jazz-boogie piano imitate a cheesy Eighties synthesizer. The "rap" track, titled "For Those of Y'all Who Wear Fannie Packs," was obviously not intended for public consumption but affords a couple of smiles anyway. (Oddly enough it also throws some well-deserved light on Sledge's bass playing.)

In a way Naked Baby Photos works like a little documentary of the band's four-year career. It's no masterpiece, but it's just endearing enough to make it worth the price.

-- Rafer Guzman

Various Artists
Live on Letterman
(Reprise)
Various Artists
Live From 6A: Conan O'Brien
(Mercury)

When Late Night With David Letterman debuted on NBC in 1982, it became increasingly obvious that Johnny Carson and his old-school musical director, Doc Severinsen, were standing on the far side of the generation gap. With anarchic humor, eclectic musical guests, and a just-winging-it atmosphere, Letterman and his musical director, Paul Shaffer, captured the "hip" college audience -- and spawned numerous Late Night imitators. Now, fifteen years later, Letterman is beginning to look rather Carsonesque. These days Conan O'Brien and his musical director, Max Weinberg, seem to be the cool ones.

Musical guests are an important ingredient of the late-night talk show format: They seem to hint at the host's personal taste. Live on Letterman and Live From 6A collect some of the most memorable live performances from Letterman's and O'Brien's respective shows. Just as the eggnog-spewing Letterman and the impish O'Brien have distinct personalities, so do the CDs.

Letterman remains the bigger name, and it's evident from the artists that appear on his disc. None of them falls into Dave's "these kids scare me" category, and most of them are in their autumnal years (for example, Lou Reed, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello, Rod Stewart, and Patti Smith). The strength of Letterman's collection lies in the creative pairings of artists. The Van Morrison/ Sinead O'Connor/Chieftains collaboration on Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You" is chock full of Irish ire, and Van the Man sounds like his usual inebriated self, laughing and purposely overdoing his vocals.

In the peculiar pairings department, there's Lyle Lovett and Al Green, who croon like twins separated at birth on the Willie Nelson ballad "Funny How Time Slips Away." Jewel and Flea make the unlikeliest combo, but they do manage to give up a funk version of Jewel's folky hit "You Were Meant for Me."

O'Brien's collection features lesser-known artists and quirkier performances. Matthew Sweet indulges his power-pop fetish on a version of "Do Ya," the Seventies nugget originally done by the Move (and one of Sweet's favorite cover songs). Elvis Costello goes minimalist on "All This Useless Beauty," relying on only his haunting vocals and spare piano accompaniment. Jonathan Richman follows with the poignant/humorous breakup ballad "Let Her Go Into the Darkness." The standout cut might be the Squirrel Nut Zippers' dependably energetic rendition of "Lover's Lane," which captures the overall feel of O'Brien's youth-oriented show.

Slightly more disappointing are the tracks that shamelessly pander to the "alternative Top 40" contingency. Cake's "The Distance" and 311's "Down," for instance, are obvious crowd-pleasers. Yet Jamiroquai, a potentially irritating group of lightweights, turns in an intriguing version of "When You Gonna Learn," which makes use of disco-guitar riffs, scratching, and didgeridoo.

While neither disc offers any truly astonishing performances, each has its own unique flavor. Too bad Pat Sajak never put out one of these.

-- Liesa Goins

A3
Exile on Cold Harbour Lane
(Geffen)

You've got to give the five ballsy Brits of A3 some credit. Not only did they name their debut disc after the Rolling Stones' finest album, Exile on Main Street, but they stocked it with the sort of joyously gimmicky music guaranteed to infuriate purists. Bless them.

The dozen tracks on Exile are an amalgam of blues, gospel, country, and techno (yes, techno). Songs such as "Woke Up This Morning" and "Converted" are propelled by the sort of loping dance beats characteristic of the London club scene. But sprinkled over this foundation are curious flourishes: pealing harmonica, Motownish harmonies, bluesy guitars, and the playful preaching of vocalists D. Wayne and Larry Love. "Ain't Goin' to Goa" is built around a solid pop melody, then inflated to epic proportions by a gospel choir and plenty of electronic mischief by a keyboardist known as the Spirit. "Mao Tse Tung Said" opens with a long, ranting soliloquy from the Reverend Jim Jones, then gives way to Love, who delivers a bubbling, dance hall-style toast devoted to the violent ideology of the late Chinese dictator.

Indeed, A3 is not without its pretentions. "Bourgeoisie Blues," for instance, offers a thumping social critique that seems to line up firmly, if somewhat loopily, behind Marxist theory. But the band is at its strongest during its moments of whimsy, which are abundant. "U Don't Dans 2 Tekno Anymore" is a rollicking country vamp that asserts the power of Hank Williams to heal even the most direly synthesized heart. A3 also serves up an enchanting, disco-happy rendition of John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness."

If you can ignore the group's silly nicknames and stubborn cheekiness, A3 is ready to offer listeners something genuinely groundbreaking: a canny merger of British electronica and American roots.

-- Steven Almond


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